Published in the New Age (9 February 2008)
During the last years of Ershad, a tide of road building projects went on throughout Dhaka. Bijoy Sarani, Panthapath and Malibagh Bishwa Road were all built during that time. Those beautifully paved roads were walled out from the neighbourhoods by ceramic brick and grilled walls. There was bougainvillea blossoming on steel-grilled structures in short intervals. They all really looked like parkways and malls rather than a city thoroughfare in a third world country.
Soon after Ershad’s fall, all the beautification vanished. Panthapath pavements and Bishwa Road footpaths turned into slums and fish markets. Those bougainvilleas were all gone in a very short time. The steel frames for bougainvilleas turned into structures holding the shanties. Some urban ‘bhodrolokes’ cited this as an example of how democracy had gone wrong and how we had been better off under Ershad.
Panthapath slums, however, disappeared over the next 15 years. Many people in those shanties moved to better housing farther from the pavements as they could afford a bit better places. This was helped by the construction boom on Panthapath. The construction boom helped those poor people get jobs. Some also got job in garment factories around.
But some shanties on Bishwa Road remained throughout the past 15 years as the inhabitants continued to struggle. Despite bhodroloke resentment of them, they hunkered down on the roadside with their family and children and probably waited for a construction boom around the Malibagh Bishwa road. The elected representatives from this area, the members of parliament and ward commissioners, protected them. Those politicians protecting the slums definitely had a vested interest. These slum dwellers are enthusiastic voters. Hence their voting right brought them the ticket to stay.
To be more precise, it was not the MPs or the ward commissioners who helped them to stay in the roadside slums and struggle for a better life until they move on. It was democracy which protected them from being made homeless. Not going into further discussion about the perceived futility of ‘election-only democracy’ and the ‘functional autocracy’ in between two elections, it can be safely said with all its lapses and weaknesses, democracy at least ensured the basic right of accommodation, however shabby it is, for those street-side slum-dwellers.
The happenings on January 11, 2007 brought a badly needed relief for the people of Bangladesh. People held hostage to protracted political power struggle breathed a sigh of relief on the postponement of confrontational politics for the time being. But as democracy failed; the basic principle of democracy – voice of every single person in society – took a backstage. A select part of society, definitely not representing the slum dwellers and not needing the slum dwellers’ vote, took over the responsibility to run the state. Naturally, one result was thousands of were homeless in the January winter and some more thousands of street vendors robbed of their means of living suddenly.
The unintended consequences of 1/11 include much more.
Few weeks after January 11, 2007, hundreds of thousands of non-resident Bangladeshis suddenly found themselves disconnected as they no longer could make phone calls to the mobile phones of their families at home. Crackdown on illegal VoIP operations started without any pre-planning on how to manage the demand of high volume overseas incoming and outgoing calls.
And in the name of price control, small businesses were being raided and armed forces started guarding the market places and dictating prices to small traders. As a result, the whole business community went into hiding, creating an unprecedented business shutdown. The prices of essentials kept going up.
Despite the overwhelming perception of relief among the bhodroloke, so far, the postponement of democracy has failed to produce any convincing result. Prices of essentials remain high, Dhaka streets are as unsafe as before, and corruption in government offices have not stopped.
It is the time we remind ourselves that, with all its drawbacks, the much loathed democracy of the past fifteen years at least did allow the homeless a shelter, be it on the public pavement or that democracy did not have to resort to using force in the country’s marketplace. Whatever foul smelling rot it was, the democracy we had did at least ensure a free uncensored and undaunted press. Democracy may be blamed for many ills, but it did not destroy VoIP first and then think about what to do next. Rather, the nation observed a communication industry boom in Bangladesh over the past fifteen years. Reasoning is a by-product of democracy. We lose that with demise of democracy.
India generally did not try hiding its street slums by demolishing them. A democratic India cleaned itself inside out and now in many flourishing Indian cities, you won’t see much of a slum. Those which are still there, are also vanishing rapidly – not by bulldozers, but by slow but steady economic democracy.
At this juncture, it won’t be unfair to question ourselves whether we will breathe easier in a dirty but democratic Kolkata than in a picturesque but military-run Islamabad.
In Bangladesh, we need a democracy that will also ensure the right for a shelter of the poor, business for the street hawkers and a reality check in all government actions. Until recently we had this assurance.